Who’d a thunk it? 21 installments into a series and, far from being a return to a comfort zone, Sue Grafton’s latest effort is something of a departure from the routine. As the book opens private investigator Kinsey Millhone is asked to do a day’s work by a young man, Michael Sutton. When he was six years old he saw two men burying something in the woods and, due to a recent newspaper article, he now believes they may have been burying the body of Mary Claire Fitzhugh, a four-year-old child who was kidnapped in 1967 and has never been seen since. Kinsey soon learns that it’s not as clear-cut as Michael thought but, as always, she doggedly nuts out all the facts and builds her case.
With respect to the doggedness of Kinsey the book is as familiar as an old cardigan but the surprising element for me was that Kinsey’s is only one of several stories that unfold in this book. In addition there’s a thread that takes place in the 1960’s featuring people who may, or may not, have had something to do with the kidnapping of the young child. The person who features most strongly in that thread is a woman called Deborah Unrah whose grown son returns home greatly changed by the flower power movement and drug culture of the 1960’s. There’s also a parallel thread to Kinsey’s in 1988 featuring a middle-aged man called Walker McNally who is a rather repugnant alcoholic. These two characters, and several others who orbit around them both, are deeply and perceptively depicted as their colliding stories are told.
In some ways the ending of the book is fairly predictable but this book isn’t the same kind of procedural as its predecessors and relies less on that kind of suspense for its drama and conflict. Instead I was gripped by Grafton’s exploration of a single concept across all the disparate threads. All of the stories, even Kinsey’s own, relate in some way to the notion of family and the myriad ways that concept can manifest in society. This book is really about why things happen rather than what happened and it’s this that is something of a departure for this series.
Grafton is one of the few authors whose books I have read in order roughly at the time they were published and due to familiarity breeding a little contempt I have tended, of late, not to look forward to them with the same anticipation that I once did. However this outing shows that Grafton still has her story telling abilities well to the fore and she is not afraid to take the risk of trying something new. Apart from discovering anew that 69-year-old Grafton is still at the top of her game I’ve also been reminded that some authors stay on the best seller lists because they are good, not merely because they have great publicity machines.
I would highly recommend the book to both Grafton’s fans, who will have just enough of the familiar to satiate their needs (though not enough Henry for most I admit), and those who have never read Grafton before because this, more than most of her other alphabet tales, is a standalone book of the highest quality. All of the niggly things about the series (such as Kinsey’s failure to age and the ever-increasing gap between the technology available to Kinsey and that available to the rest of us) really take a back seat in this installment because here stories with undercurrents are all that matter.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating: 4.5/5
Narrator: Judy Kaye, Publisher: Random House Audio , Length: 14hrs 5mins, Setting: California, USA 1960’s and 1988.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
On the day ‘U’ was released Sarah Weinman’s article based on her interview with Sue Grafton appeared in the LA Times and a Q&A by Carol Memmott also appeared in USA Today.
U is for Undertow has been reviewed at Lesa’s Book Critiques, Book Dilettante and Reviewing the Evidence but if you’re looking for a negative perspective you’ll have to trawl through the Amazon reviews and even then you’ll have to look hard.
The only other novel in this series that I have reviewed here is T is for Trespass which received the same rating for vastly different reasons.